On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda operatives under the direction of Osama Bin Laden bombed two United States embassies in Africa. The truck bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 213 people, injured approximately 4,000, and severely damaged the embassy. The other bombing, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, killed twelve people and injured eighty-five others. Upon hearing about these bombings, Ana Castillo wrote the poem “While I Was Gone a War Began,” and she notes in I Ask the Impossible (2001), the collection in which the poem appears, that the poem was originally written in 1998 in Chicago. The poem is thus a reaction to a specific (albeit unnamed within the poem) incident, but it addresses the violent state of the world in general.
Although Al Qaeda terrorist attacks against the United States have been numerous, the embassy bombings were the most notable until the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The title of Castillo’s poem, therefore, seems prophetic. The war against America had indeed begun, but the majority of the public did not realize it until the New York City and Washington, DC attacks on that date.
“While I Was Gone a War Began” is set in a vineyard and in Rome, Italy. The message of the poem seems to be that everyone is affected by world events, and everyone must do his part to improve the world in whatever way his talents enable him. The poem also questions the effectiveness of literature in combating social injustice and expresses frustration with the public’s acceptance of violence as a norm in everyday life.
In the first line, the narrator states that while she “was gone a war began,” but she does not divulge in this first stanza where she has been or where the war is. She notes that she is in Rome and that she has been seeking translations of daily news reports from her friends. The narrator feels as if she has heard the story before, perhaps in a movie or an advertisement. The scenes of war on television must appear like movies or commercials; they have been seen before so many times, but this time they are for real and the speaker is in disbelief.
The narrator questions whether she has seen these images before in an underground cartoon, or perhaps in an old John Wayne film. John Wayne stands for the ideal American defender. Castillo may have chosen the phrase “sinister sheikh” because it is a stereotypical image that Americans have of Arab terrorists. Consequently, the “sinister sheikh versus John Wayne” is the classic bad guy versus good guy.
Turning then to a biblical reference, the narrator brings to mind the disasters recorded in the Book of Revelation. Comparing herself to a nonbeliever remembering Sunday school as just a bunch of stories and not true recordings or predictions, she wonders why people bother with such fiction when real life is much scarier. The fiction seems scarier than anything we can imagine from our comfortable little worlds, but it is not. For centuries, the apocalyptic events in Revelation have been considered the worst possible disasters. The narrator lists a number of such catastrophes that have already happened around the world, repeatedly and at the same time, and is at a loss to explain the continued existence of fiction. Reality is enough.
In this stanza, the narrator discusses conflicts that have erupted around the world. The narrator mentions the Congo, Ireland, and Mexico, because in 1998 rebel forces took over large sections of the Congo from its relatively new ruler; the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland that was expected to bring long-sought peace to the country was met with continued violence by the IRA; and in the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico, Zapatista rebels and the Mexican Army continued to clash. The narrator suggests that the rate of conflict is such that in these parts of the world and presumably elsewhere humans may soon destroy everything and everyone. The line “It’s only a speculation, of course” is a sarcastic touch added, possibly, for all the people who respond cynically to such a prediction.
This long stanza is a conversation between the narrator and a person she calls “an Italian dissident.” The dissident angrily asks her what good the great writers have done in terms of saving lives and feeding the hungry. He mocks her by asking what protection an American passport gives her “when your American plane blows up?” in a possible reference to the bombing of Pan Am flight 203 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. He asks these questions, says the narrator, “as if / this new war were my personal charge.” Considering Castillo’s message in this poem that each person has to make a contribution to the world, perhaps she uses the word “personal” intentionally to indicate that the war is indeed her personal charge because every individual must take responsibility for what goes on in the world.
The dissident mentions that African refugees in Italy now selling trinkets would not hesitate to kill their enemy again if given the chance. The dissident asks if the African is the bad guy or the ones who drives him out of his country. He questions “Who is the last racist?” in a chain of racists, if the white colonialists killed blacks, but blacks now kill each other. And who exhibits the worst colonial behavior, the Mexican authority brutalizing the indigents or the white rancher taking advantage of the Mexican illegal immigrants?
The stanza concludes with the dissident saying he hopes that for both their sakes the narrator’s pen will be mightier than the sword in its effectiveness at combating the world’s problems. He says that he is not a writer or a father, but he still gives his life for a good cause until he no longer has the energy or will to care anymore. The description of the dissident as a smoker with yellowed teeth makes him more real in the reader’s mind.
The dissident’s angry comments leave the narrator speechless at the realization of the possible futility of her words. She also may feel chastised for using words when he had just told her they do no good. The narrator and the dissident drink wine in silence and trap “a rat getting into the vat.” She reveals that she and the dissident are at the vineyard that belonged to the dissident’s late father. They watch the sun set together. These common actions are placed in the poem to indicate that life goes on. We have to keep living, so we eat and drink. We act as if there will be a future by preserving a vat from getting contaminated. Castillo’s use of the word “another” in describing the red sunset reminds the reader that there have been many sunsets before and, most likely, there will be many more to come. At the end of the poem, the narrator returns to the world where the press is more concerned with “sordid scandal” than with reporting on the world’s anguish, when in fact “surprise bombing over any city at night” is the worst scandal of all. “Any” and every bombing should be considered a violent assault on us all because, ultimately, we are all affected in some way or another. Such incidents are not someone else’s problem, but a horror that should disturb us into action to preserve the “sanctity of the night.”